Friday, 30 July 2010

All joy and no fun?

Last week a friend sent me a fascinating article from the New York magazine about why parents hate parenting. It was entitled ‘All Joy and No Fun’, and took as its starting point a range of academic research that shows that, although “most people assume that having children will make them happier”, in fact “parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so”. The article also discussed the fact that child care and parenting come pretty low down on surveys in which people rank how pleasurable they find different tasks. A similar result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children “invariably reducing marital satisfaction” (not a surprise really, when you think about the strains parenting puts on a relationship!). There follows some really interesting discussion about why this might be – the challenge that parenting has always been, plus recent changes in society that have changed roles, tasks and expectations – and a couple of passages about the reality of being a parent made me chuckle in recognition.

One such statement, that “While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while”, reminds me of the moment when we finally got eleven week old Amélie to sleep in her cot at a decent hour in the evening, got excited that we’d at last be able to go out for a relaxing twilight stroll together as we had loved to do, but then realized that at least one of us was actually stuck in the house! It was one of those moments when the penny drops and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry – I think maybe I did a bit of both. The other part of the article that made me laugh out loud was the story of a famous psychologist who, when he finally got around to having children, told a colleague that: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” This expresses so succinctly and colourfully the feeling I often get when an otherwise pleasant meal, road trip or walk in the woods is subtly or dramatically ruined (for want of a better word!) by the presence and needs of my darling daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I want her to be there; it’s just that sometimes I would like her to be there in a quasi-adult form, without the demands, meltdowns and whines, or even the very reasonable need for my attention and care. And there is no denying that when, as we did last night, Jeremy and I get a rare evening alone to jaunt off to St Andrews-by-the-Sea, sit on The Gables restaurant terrace by the water, eat without responsibility for the nourishment of a child, and talk without interruption, it is a far more purely pleasurable experience, and our ‘marital satisfaction’ probably experiences a sudden surge!

But the article also goes on to ask why, if parents aren’t happy, we as a race keep choosing to have kids, we generally love them dearly, and most parents do not regret having children (except on really bad days!). Then, in discussing a particular video clip of a stressful and rather typical exchange between a teenage boy and his mother over ‘screen time’ – a video referred to as brilliant birth control! – the article points out that neither a video, nor the content of one conversation or argument, can show the very deep love that is in the heart of this mother for her child, nor the hopes and values she has for the child that cause her to enter into a conflict zone she would probably much rather stay out of. And this is what it comes down to for me, and why I have never regretted becoming a parent, though there are days when my resentment levels are higher than normal, or when I think it’s a task I cannot manage: I’m ultimately not in this for easy, instant pleasure or personal satisfaction. Sometimes those things call out to me so loudly that I can hardly hear anything else, but the voice that calls me back is, I hope, love. That’s what I want to grow in, and into, who I want to become. That’s what I’m hoping is slowly drawing me out of my self-centredeness. So I’m happy that the article chooses to finish with some research that sensibly, instead of asking only about the pleasurableness of tasks, asked people to rank how rewarding different parts of their life are; unsurprisingly, parenting came high on the rewarding scale, though much further down on the pleasurable scale. This makes total sense to me, and also demonstrates the arbitrary and slippery nature of words. What do they really mean, all these words? Pleasurable or rewarding, fun or joy, satisfaction or love, happiness or contentment… Yes, my life is more challenging and less ‘unruffled’ than it used to be, but of COURSE there is happiness, pleasure and fun in living with a little person bursting with life and love! When I picked Amélie up from her sleepover this morning, a fresh explosion of unnamable loveliness and lightness entered the car along with her precious, pint-sized body. So perhaps what is really at stake here is how we as individuals and as a culture define the important concepts embodied in the words we bandy around as desirable goals and experiences. And perhaps parenting is one of the significant life experiences or ‘encounters’ that could help (or force) us to redefine our concepts, words, goals, values – even ourselves – for our own and everyone’s good. A longer quote from the article:

“Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)”

There’s something to this idea, but I’m not utterly convinced (seven kids must kill a few brain cells, don't you think?!). What about this for an idea though? If all you’re looking for is ‘fun’, life will inevitably blindside you and you’ll end up with very little of the experience you so desperately seek; but if you’re willing to aim for the sort of ‘joy’ that takes some hard work and sacrifice, fun will jump out at you from behind a tree while you’re minding your own business, and want to come along for the ride. That’s my experience, anyway. And one I’m hoping will – lack of sleep notwithstanding – repeat itself when I camp out with Amélie in the garden tonight!


  1. I wonder how much of the pleasure/joy/etc scale is due to our culture of instant gratification and do what you want? Our species must continue -and therefore, there must be that pleasure that you mention - that "explosion of unnamable loveliness and lightness"- so you continue to rear her. and in me, a childless person, the intense hope and want that comes from complete ignorance of the reality of not being able to go for an evening walk w/ your sig-oth because someone must stay home w/ the baby (let alone the sleepless nights, the willfulness, the locked horns, the worry, the sheer terror during illness and the list goes on)

    So, I guess, too, are these questions about pleasure and joy even helpful to parents? To our society? Do they make us more selfish and less likely to have children or tolerate their childishness? As you say, you might wish she were a "mini-me" but you also know that is an unreal expectation. She's a child. It's her job to act as she does and our job as adults to make certain she is safe and challenged so she can become an adult who neither whinges and waits for others to wait upon her or become a bully or whatever else you are raising her to be and not to be.

    I guess I just wonder... how much "fun" are we supposed to have? and how can we re-learn satisfaction and joy are worth their weight, so to speak.

  2. Marjanna, Marjanna, I love your thoughts and questions and perspective - THANK you! And... come and visit, and we can while away many an hour talking and putting the world to rights. :-)